[Warning: The essay below contains spoilers for the Richard Linklater films Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before
members of my and succeeding
generations have come to understand that marriage might not be the
sacrosanct institution we once believed. It’s not unusual, of course, for
an individual to decide that their plans for their future—for their own
self-development emotionally, professionally, and spiritually—are not
conducive to the sorts of sacrifices a marriage calls for. But recent
generations seem to have put enough thought into this possibility that,
for the first time, the very institution of marriage is in doubt. We know from history, experience, and the Richard
Linklater film Before Midnight that the
ambitions of women can be particularly imperiled by marriage, because our culture still considers
the lion’s share of marital sacrifices to be feminine. One not only hopes
but expects this circumstance to end in the near
future; until it does, it will be the responsibility of each man and
woman considering marriage to ask of themselves this question: Have I
developed in my youth and young adulthood the inner resources to war
with myself over the competing demands of self-realization and marital
compromise without permitting this war to
myself, my mate, our prospective children, and other bystanders? This
is not the same as
treating marriage as a series of silent sacrifices: couples can, do,
and should communicate to whatever degree is necessary to navigate shared
and separate hopes and ambitions. But when dialogue invariably escalates
into irreparable verbal aggression, as happens in the denouement of
Linklater’s Before Midnight—a
documentation of several hours of small, unanswered provocations that
predictably explode into a relationship-threatening tilt—the question
becomes not whether a marriage can survive, but whether it should survive.
continue in their common-law marriage only if
they developed complex and abiding strategies to turn frustrated
self-realization into productive dialogue. I know from hard experience
that arguments punctuated by “I don’t love you” can happen only a few
times in a relationship—perhaps
not more than once—before cataclysmic damage has been done to the
relationship jointly and to both parties individually. There’s no
evidence either of the partners depicted in Before Midnight
has developed an appropriate strategy for coping with noxious feelings
of entrapment, unless we’re to count the implied infidelity of each
partner as a solution, which of course it isn’t. It’s hard to conclude,
then, from the evidence of the final scenes of
that Jesse and Celine’s marriage will continue. One expects, though, that
in nine years of Hollywood and actual time we will discover (in a film
called Before Dying or some such)
that in fact either the well-being of their children, inertia,
couples’ counseling, or a deus ex machina has saved Jesse and Celine from
the dissolution of their union.
as the one we witness in the Linklater trilogy should continue. For his part, Jesse makes clear in Before Midnight that he decided, years earlier, that his happiness lay with Celine, for
better or worse, in bad times and good. Celine appears to have drawn no
such conclusion. If nine years of common-law marriage, two
children, and countless shared sacrifices and joys have not
convinced her to either a) choose what happiness she can find with
Jesse, or b) take whatever steps might make such a feeling possible on her part (be it individual and/or couples’ counseling,
substantially more generative dialogues with her partner, or some adjustment of her own or Jesse’s ambitions), there is no particular
reason to think her relationship with Jesse can, will, or should sustain
many more direct hits to its bow. These hits are equally damaging to
Celine and to Jesse, and each year that passes in which Celine believes
her marriage the terminus of all her ambitions is another year those
ambitions are not being realized and she and her mate are suffering the
calamity of being slowly but violently pulled apart.
which featured the reminiscences of a hospice nurse regarding the five
common regrets of her dying charges.
The most curious entry to the list—in the nurse’s view, and perhaps in
the minds of many of her readers—was the fact that many of those whose
deaths had been witnessed and memorialized had not realized before
dying that happiness is a choice. The words themselves (“happiness is a
choice”) sound trite, but in fact if there is a significant cinematic
achievement to be found in Before Midnight,
and there is, it is that the movie exhibits better than any before it that happiness is indeed something we either learn to choose during
our lifetimes or do not.
course, “choosing happiness” is no guarantee of actual
happiness, nor does it prevent isolation, depression, or
self-destruction. What it is, however, is an attitudinal alignment that
says each choice one makes will be made, to the best of one’s ability,
with sufficient self-knowledge to make happiness a marginally more
likely outcome than would have been the case were the decision made
blindly. In other words, to choose happiness, we must
first work diligently at self-knowledge, as those who cannot
or will not know themselves (the good, the bad, the ugly, all of it)
are those who cannot intelligently determine their future likelihood to
produce happiness in themselves or in others. Such individuals only harm
themselves and others in their meanderings, and while we do well to
care deeply about such individuals and to help them on their way, we
also do well to give them wide berth when the time comes to choose a
lifelong partner–at least until they find themselves differently
situated. This is not because such people can’t be vigorously happy, as
they can be; or because they cannot bring joy to others, as depending
upon their circumstances they often will; or because they’re
ill-intentioned, as far more often than not they’re not; but rather
because, of all the institutions human civilization has devised,
marriage most requires as an antecedent the inner
resources to wage productively rather than destructively the war we all,
degree or another,
perpetually wage within ourselves over when and how to sacrifice for
those we love. It is no crime to know oneself an
ill match for the institution of marriage; it is no crime
to not know oneself well enough to protect oneself and another from
an ill-made and ill-fated match; it is, however, a tragedy
to so conjoin and to be so conjoined, and an even worse tragedy to
remain so past the point a change is still possible. And it’s a tragedy
that’s avoidable from the start.
many of my generation, I have both dated individuals facing the same
tough questions as Celine and Jesse and
also wondered about my own suitability for a lifelong commitment. And
like many of my generation, I have suffered at the hands of those
who believed themselves prepared for the sort of long-term union that
was not, in the event, what they really wanted. It will be a poor result
of the remarkable act of filmmaking that is Before Midnight
if the consequent conversations between partners who’ve seen the
movie hinge primarily on whether one or another of the two central characters could have done this or that or avoided doing this
or that to make all well between the film’s two leads. It will be a poor
result because the sort of conflict depicted in the movie, at least in
the lines of dialogue we hear onscreen, is not navigable, and believing
it so only brings more pain and suffering to its participants.
they first met
eighteen years ago (in Before
Sunrise) and then reunited nine years later (in Before Sunset).
Both parties made a decision, on those dates, to continue a liaison
with someone whose ambitions and temperament and self-identity were not
compatible with their own; Jesse and Celine, in short, confused lively
conversation with a future. But abiding relationships delve much deeper
into the psyche than mere repartee does, a fact Linklater’s first two
films displayed little enough awareness of to be disconcerting.
blame for any of the above lies at the feet of either Jesse or Celine,
though we could certainly wish that, as a couple, the two had either
seen their initial meetings for what they were—something glorious but
fleeting—or else, in deciding otherwise, developed more resources to
work through what (by the time of the events of Before Midnight) has
clearly become a hardened
disconnect. Anyone who can watch the hotel scene in Before Midnight and not
see a relationship in which this sort of aggression has played out many
times before has never been in a relationship in which this sort of war
of words occurs in the first instance. The accusations and insults
hurled in anger—I hate making love to you; I ruined my life for you;
you’re mentally disturbed; your selfishness makes my happiness a
perpetual impossibility; I cheated on you; I also cheated on you; I
don’t love you anymore—are harrowing and more often than not
relationship-ending. Those who say the movie depicts a couple who’ve
just “grown a bit weary,” or are merely “a little bitter” were clearly watching the movie they’d hoped to see, not the movie they were given by the film’s writers and director.
sensibility (as opposed to one of gloomy pragmatism)
can offer only one solution: separation of the parties. It
will hurt their children, likely irreparably, but as Before Midnight takes
great pains to establish with respect to Jesse’s son Henry, such a
wound is survivable. It is, moreover, preferable to a childhood spent
listening to one’s parents arguing (or brooding silently) over acts of
verbal aggression, infidelities, or even (at the extreme terminus of
such a destructive downward spiral) physical aggression waged by one or
of the parties against the person or property of the other. It is no gift to seal two characters moviegoers love so much into a coffin of
shared fate neither truly wishes for themselves. It is, in fact, our own
selfishness in wishing for life to be different in the movies than it
is in our own bedrooms and backyards.
so, with the foregoing in mind, I ask—even beseech—Richard Linklater
to divorce these two characters and let each live the life they were
meant to be living. If you want to make a movie that reflects the times
we live in, Mr. Linklater, make a movie in which marriage is not, in
fact, for everyone, and in which no one is forced to spend a lifetime
with someone they see as an obstacle or an albatross rather than a
partner. One wonderful day in Vienna, and another wonderful day in
Paris, do not a lifetime make. Like many my age, I have had such days, I
have even been lucky enough to have many months of such days, and I
know as well as you do, Mr. Linklater,
they simply aren’t enough. The day Celine chooses
happiness is the day she leaves Jesse, and the day Jesse chooses
happiness is the day he accepts it and moves on. I don’t want it to be
so, but I know it to be so. I
recognize the bind you’re in—your commitment to cinema verite is at
odds with your own (and Ethan Hawke’s and Julie Delpy’s) abiding
attachment to Jesse and Celine—but the obligation you owe to love,
life, and art takes precedent over the obligations you owe to the box
office, the media, and even your audience.
Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.
4 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Richard Linklater: Let Jesse and Celine Separate. Preserve Cinéma Vérité.”
First of all, this was really interesting to read; all the things you discuss make complete sense. However, I simply cannot agree with your call for Jesse and Celine to be divorced.
When I first read the reviews for 'Before Midnight' when it had only been released at film festivals, I thought it would be an uncomfortable film to watch, with the same old "real" shit that you see going on in the lives of long-term couples in their 40s all around you. I was pleasantly surprised. THIS movie is, by far, the most romantic one I've ever watched. I'm 22; I should find 'Before Sunrise' the most romantic, but 'Midnight' takes love to another level, and 'Sunset' was just a transition into the lives of Jesse & Celine when they're together, like really together, and what happens then.
This is a love that is so true & intimate even today – If I could be like that with my boyfriend at age 41, that's my fairytale right there. Because although it's gotten messy & dust-caked with challenging responsibilities, it's pure at the center. From Celine's sideways glance at Jesse at the mention of the one "soulmate" to how he grabs her hand when Natalia speaks with great feeling about her deceased husband to Jesse's ardent, steadfast commitment to Celine & their girls, I could really spend days compiling a list of all the magic that continues to shine through, only cloaked in a different costume.
Bottom line: A magical relationship is not about what you say to each other or how ostensibly perfect your life is together. It's about how stubbornly you keep going, faltering sometimes in seemingly shocking but natural ways when you get frustrated ("I don't love you anymore"), and the only thing that brings you back is a deeper realization of your love.
Firstly, they are not married. They reference the very fact that they are not married when they debate what to tell their children when they ask "Why aren't you married like other parents?" I can't help but feel that your entire argument is hinged upon this premise which is false.
Secondly, once again, Linklater has left the ending very open; who knows what is going to happen the following morning?
In short, it depends.
I've forever been a fan of movies with unhappy–or at least unclear–endings. Because, yeah, that's typically how life really is…cinÃ©ma vÃ©ritÃ©, and shit.
All the same, if indeed this is the last installment of one of American indie cinema's greatest romances, for Richard Linklater to simply run the credits after Celine storms out would be, IMHO, too fuckin' easy. After nearly two decades following this unlikely couple, we need closure. Should said closure come in the form of "being served," well, so be it.
Then again, perhaps the greatness of this very trilogy has been in Linklater's obdurate refusal to give us anything real at all.